Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

Trent Bridge, day three: WI 61-6

Today was almost the West Indies’ day. They just needed to get through the final session without collapsing to not only have won the day but to actually have a chance to be on top in the match. That did not happen.

Yesterday I wrote that the West Indies would have to bowl much better today than they did yesterday to stay in the match and that is exactly what they did. Rampaul got some swing with the old ball to remove KP (not even through a bad shot, just an excellent delivery) and Roach finally found a spell where he stayed behind the line and got both Bell and Baristow with the second new ball. It was a fantastic spell of bowling and it really put England on the back foot, a position from which they never fully recovered.

Jonny Baristow looked very uncomfortable against the short delivery in his short stay at the crease. Opinion seemed to be divided over whether it constituted a weakness of not, but I am not inclined to think it does. Certainly he looked surprised by it and certainly he did not play it well, but it was part of a vicious new ball burst by Kemar Roach. There are few batsmen who would have played that very well and fewer still in their second Test. I think it is too early to pass a judgement on him.

I said that Kemar Roach found a spell of keeping his foot behind the line and that is true, but that period passed and we had more instances of the umpires ‘missing’ no-balls. We frequently saw them walk over to the crease to scrape away a bit and we saw on TV that the bowlers were overstepping, but it was only called a few times. This is a situation that should be rectified and could easily be. The on-field umpires have a radio connection to the third umpire; we know that the latter sees the no-balls, why can he not simply alert the former in real time? This would not even add any time to the game. All that has to happen is the third umpire radios down as it happens and the on-field umpire calls and signals such immediately thereafter. No need for analysis, discussion or anything of that sort; it would be just as quick and clear as if the on-field umpire had seen it. It would also free up the on-field umpire to focus on any potential incidents with the delivery.

I suggested yesterday that Tim Bresnan may have sneaked back into the side by picking up the tail-end wickets. That performance is probably irrelevant now, if he does not play at Edgbaston it will only be because of a rotation policy. He showed that he still can score runs and actually looked like he was trying to grind out an innings. At one point he had scored 20 runs off over 60 deliveries. It worked too; he finished with a very good 39 not out. What sealed it, however, was the three wickets he took during the West Indies collapse. England will certainly be happy to have a fully firing Tim Bresnan back, but I actually still think that Steve Finn ought to get a Test at some point. Bresnan’s runs in the first innings only compensated for some of the ones that he conceded on the first day and there is no reason why Finn could not have taken wickets too. The ball was starting to keep low by the time he took his wickets and it really suited the way he was bowling. That may happen again, but this has not been a typical English wicket and I still strongly feel that England must give Steven Finn a chance to show what he can do at some point. Bresnan was very good today, but we cannot just ignore what happened over the first six days of the series. One swallow does not a summer make.

My preference is still to play five bowlers. Bresnan scored runs again today and did so conventionally. The above paragraph should not be taken as a slight on him, he is a good cricketer and would easily be in any other side. It’s just that the same is true of Finn and ideally they would both play. This will probably not happen in the near future, but it would solve a lot of our selection problems.

I’m hesitant to say what might happen tomorrow. The West Indies have swung wildly from being very competitive and showing real talent to the 61-6 we saw in the evening session today. Samuels and Sammy are the two not out batsmen and they really need to put on another 200 partnership or the West Indies have just about had it. Frankly, they may have anyway. The pitch is breaking up, but not so much that one would say that England could not chase almost anything up to 250. The West Indies currently only lead by three. I expect a bit of fight, but I expect them to last to lunch and I would be surprised if they set England more than 100 to win. They’ve been surprising so far, however, they could surprise again.

England win by five wickets

I got the margin of victory off by one wicket. And that wicket fell with two runs to win. I’m kind of annoyed about that, but otherwise my thought last night that it would be tricky for England at first but ultimately comfortable was fairly accurate. Cook and Bell progressed serenely in a partnership of 132 for the fifth wicket that all but won England the match.

It was actually a pretty good, one might almost say ‘standard’, Test. Not particularly close, but not a blowout and a couple of sessions of negative bowling by England aside there was always something to watch. I don’t think either side will be too happy with the Test, however. England will be happy to have won, but did not ever seem to really play as well as they should and have a lot on which to work before the Trent Bridge Test on Friday. The West Indies overperformed, but if one had not expected them to be hammered one would probably not say they played particularly well, though it is a mark of how much they overperformed that one would also not say they played particularly poorly and certainly played as well as any average side would be expected to. They will also be disappointed to have lost.

As mentioned on a previous day, England’s bowling in this Test was at best average and at worst poor. Even with the standard caveats of good batting by Chanderpaul; a flat pitch and not a lot of swing, one would have to say that England need to improve. Jimmy was certainly off his best, despite bowling better than his figures suggested. Broad bowled well, but was rather flattered by his figures. Bresnan was simply poor and Swann did not get a chance to feature heavily, but managed to get the prize wicket of Chanderpaul as well as the important one of Bravo in the second innings. I think they will improve, however. One of the problems was that, as far as I know, none of them had more than one or two county matches in which to prepare. I think Jimmy especially needs more than the one match he got to really find his rhythm for the summer. The same, to a lesser extent, applies to Broad as well and although he was good in this Test I think he will be better in the next one. I think, however, that Bresnan needs some more time with Yorkshire. He has not looked quite the same since he returned from injury and I think he just needs more time in the middle with bat and ball. We have enough bowling depth to play Finn and/or Onions for the rest of this series. In hindsight (and this is not meant as a criticism because it was not as clear before the match) Onions should have played in this Test where the conditions would have been very well suited to him.

The West Indies need to work on their running between the wickets. A lot. They lost wickets in both innings to horrible mix-ups and could (arguably should) have had the Chanderpaul-Samuels partnership broken by one in the second innings. As important as that is, they also need to improve their batting in general. As mentioned above their performance was not in any way poor, but that does not mean that it does not need improvement. Especially in the first innings they still lost wickets to injudicious shots and the dismissal of Sammy in the second is almost cause enough to strip him of the captaincy. They did not collapse the way they could have (and did at home) and now their task is to build on that and improve. In the field they need to work on sustaining pressure. I never thought they were going to win today, but they did not put up much of a fight after dismissing KP. Even before then the field setting was odd (a problem we saw in Australia too) and there were always runs on offer. Despite losing two early wickets and being 57-4 (though one of those was a nightwatchman), England scored 121 runs in the morning session. It was a rate one would normally associate with well set batsman going effortlessly, not fighting through a difficult first hour. There was some poor bowling, only Roach was going really well, but a lot of very poor captaincy from Sammy. The field placing was terrible and the decision to bring the part time spinner on to bowl to Ian Bell was baffling.

Looking ahead to Trent Bridge, I think both teams ought to make changes. England should bring in one of Finn or Onions for Bresnan. Right now I would lean toward Finn, but that is without seeing the conditions. If it is a relatively quick wicket then I would certainly prefer Finn’s pace and bounce, though if it is slow then Onions’ ability to bowl at the stumps and move the ball in the air might be preferable. That should be the only change; whilst Bairstow only made 16, he did so comfortably and deserves another go. The West Indies must bring in a proper spinner this time. Samuels might buy a couple of wickets, but we already saw Bell take him apart. Shillingford will presumably replace one of the quicks and I suspect it will be Gabriel, as promising as the debutant looked. It is worth noting, however, that Roach appeared to have a slight ankle problem. There is also an outside chance that Edwards will be dropped after being wayward once again. It would be a gamble to ask Gabriel to lead the attack, however. The bowler who probably should be replaced is Sammy, but as the captain that will not happen.

The ball will almost certainly swing more at Trent Bridge than it did at Lord’s and it will be interesting to see if the West Indies can continue their fight. I may have mentioned it already, but in 2007 the West Indies batted very well at Lord’s before rain intervened. They then went to Headingley and lost by an innings and 283 runs, though there were some extenuating circumstances. I think the next Test will be more of a challenge for them than this one was; England will have likely improved and the conditions will be tougher. Weather permitting, England can expect to win. Whether the West Indies can make another good Test of it will tell us a lot about the nature of their improvement.